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What it means to be Jewish in America

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Posted at 11:07 AM, Jan 12, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-12 11:09:38-05

Anna Eisen is the founder of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas. To be Jewish in America is to know, on some level, what it means to be “the stranger.”

“So often in the Bible, they talk about the stranger. And I think that we can look like a stranger," Eisen said.

Jeff Cohen And Shane Woodward were in the building a year ago when someone chose violence against them and their faith.

“He asked if we had a homeless shelter or if we could help them get to a shelter,” Cohen said. “And, you know, we’re taught to welcome the stranger. And so, that’s what we thought we were doing.”

Halfway through Shabbat services, congregants streaming the services called 911. The stranger at their synagogue door had begun holding those inside hostages. He wanted the release of a prisoner. He said he had a reason for choosing a synagogue.

“What our attacker said is Jews control the press. Jews control the media. Jews control the banks. Jews control the government,” Cohen said. “This guy believed it. He had heard these over and over again.”

Four congregants were held hostage for eleven hours. They finally escaped. The gunman was killed when FBI agents stormed the synagogue and shot him.

“It was a day that had a beginning and an end. But, we now can look back and see it was also part of an emerging trend of antisemitism that is spreading throughout this country and in other countries as well,” Eisen said.

Acts of antisemitism have always existed, but since 2016, reports of antisemitic acts have more than doubled. The year 2021 was the worst on record. In the first week of 2023, antisemitic incidents were reported in the press in Florida, Nevada, Michigan, and Montana.

“There is pushback in a lot of schools looking toward banning books and controlling what is going to be taught about the Holocaust,” Eisen said.

“Antisemitism is real. We’re in 2023, and it’s very alive, and it’s out there,” Woodward added.

Woodward was not born Jewish. He was raised Christian in a small town in west Texas. He wasn’t aware of antisemitism until he began to convert.

“I traveled to Winston-Salem on a business trip and some colleagues and I had gotten into an Uber,” Woodward said. “He looks at me in the mirror, and he says, ‘Do you want to know why there’s no Jews in Winston-Salem? I don’t know. I don’t know why. And he says, ‘Because there’s no banks. There’s no diamonds.’”

The same stereotypes that bred those statements fueled the man who invaded a religious service.

“We have some members who are very leery to take their children to religious school. We've got others who, even when there's no signs out front or anything like that, don't want to go to a public place where we're meeting,” Cohen said.

Eisen adds, “Do I feel safe? No, I don’t feel safe. When I have to go into my synagogue with an armed guard at the door, why would I feel safe? It feels like our liberty, our safety, our right to this security in this country, has been tainted.”

To be Jewish in America is too often seen as both foreign and familiar, but they are still part of the community.

“Our image of ourselves, what we strive for, is to be welcoming,” Cohen said. “I would never want to be part of a synagogue that would not welcome the stranger.”